Stacey Abrams still has her eye on ‘16 for Democrats in Georgia

Watching Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams walk into the conference area of a Midtown hotel last week, you’d think she was a rock star.

People stepped in her pathway, made a point to catch her eye, said hello, gave her a hug. They talked about how much they had learned, who they had met, what they wanted to do next. More importantly to Abrams, this wasn’t the sea of white faces she often faced in political circles.

They were mostly brown, mostly African-American or Latino. They believed themselves to be the next wave in American progressive politics. And few — if any — worried about Abrams’ battles at home.

The completion last week of a new Georgia-based boot camp for 40 young Democratic operatives from across the South and Southwest has likely helped the Atlanta Democrat burnish her rising national profile. It furthered her own goal of diversifying the ranks of those working in her own party.

But it’s a push coming despite unfinished — and some would say incomplete — efforts at home.

Some of her caucus members privately grouse about poor communication or absentee leadership. Some Democratic donors and strategists remain angry over the mess last year that ensnared Abrams’ New Georgia Project over voter registration efforts and how it spent a reported $4 million.

In the state Legislature, some would-be allies, including Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, have publicly questioned Abrams’ tactics and transparency — Fort began this year’s legislative session by declaring Abrams was more likely to meet with Republican leaders than his caucus. If there is a unifying criticism of Abrams from within her own party, it is a belief she is too focused on brightening her own star.

More telling, perhaps, is that most of her critics don’t want to go on the record.

“I’m not sure the best way to help her is to state it publicly,” said state Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone. Instead, Fludd said simply that Abrams, like all lawmakers, “has some challenges and opportunity for growth.”

‘A bridge’ to political world

Abrams, 41, conceived of the BLUE Institute as a way to provide a training ground for young people of color expected to help rebuild the Democratic Party. Most who attended the training last week were in their 20s and 30s, from places such as Alabama, Arkansas and California.

The training they got mixed strategies in grass-roots organizing with the realities of running a campaign: how to budget for direct mail, for instance, or communicate with the media during a crisis.

Unabashedly left-leaning, the curriculum came together with help from Wellstone Action, a politically progressive group inspired by Minnesota’s late Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Other groups involved in the week included Emily’s List, a Washington-based group that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights.

More than theoretical, it included resume-building exercises and pointers about how to go after campaign jobs, particularly ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

The concept has gotten national support — and attention.

Michael Tyler, a spokesman at the Democratic National Committee and a former Georgian, said Abrams’ work in Georgia is well known in Washington.

“Stacey Abrams is committed to making sure that the Democratic Party continues to expand its voter outreach efforts in what is quickly becoming a key swing state,” said Tyler, who worked on Michelle Nunn’s 2014 bid for the U.S. Senate. “With Georgia rapidly turning purple and potentially in play in 2016 and beyond, it is important to make sure we’re continuing to recruit and train talented public servants.”

Participants seemed to feed off each other’s energy, shouting encouragement to classmates as they acted out scenarios presented to them as problem-solving exercises. Everyone had a common interest in politics but said they needed new or better tools to take their interest and turn it into action — and work.

At the end of the week, participants attended a job fair with the likes of the Florida Democratic Party, the New Virginia Majority and the Ohio Democratic Party.

“I’m trying to transition from a traditional career in law to taking my background and planting it in politics,” said Ashley Scott, 27, an Atlanta attorney who had dabbled in various impact groups and organizations but wasn’t sure how to more fully immerse herself into politics. “This is more so a bridge between those two worlds.”

It also offered a crash course in networking.

“I’m learning most importantly from the people that are around me but who are not the same as me,” Scott said. “Maybe we have the same skin color, but we have different experiences. That’s what’s important to me. That’s the nontextbook things that you learn, like the real world skills. So I’m learning about finance, but I’m also learning about someone’s grass-roots experience with Black Lives Matter or with tackling immigration issues in Arizona. When’s the next time I’m going to be able to speak to someone on that level?”

‘Sometimes you have to do things different’

At the start of the year, some thought Abrams’ political future could be on the line.

The New Georgia Project had made a very public splash in an effort to register voters ahead of the November elections. The project has said it submitted about 81,000 registration forms as part of the effort. But only about 46,000 of those people made the rolls. In the interim came accusations of voter fraud, counteraccusations of voter suppression and a lawsuit won by Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp over allegations he and local elections officials had somehow misplaced the forms.

The entire controversy happened outside the Legislature, but many saw it as probably the biggest hit Abrams had taken in the five years she has been minority leader. In other words, many thought she’d stepped in it. Last week, she offered no apology.

“There will always be critiques, but the question is: Are we doing the best work possible? And I’m very proud of the work we’re doing in every facet of my life,” Abrams said during a break in the training.

“Sometimes you have to do things different than other people would have you do them because part of leadership is being willing to think differently to get your job done. And I do not do this job the way my predecessors have done it. I don’t do the job exactly the way my counterparts do it,” she said. “But I would argue that we have been extraordinarily successful as a caucus in getting things done for Georgia in the last five years that I’ve served as leader.”

Abrams’ caucus, while a minority, is still in a decent position to make a deal. Republicans in the House do not control a supermajority and, with the influence of groups such as the tea party, are more factionalized. That means Democratic votes in the chamber can often hold greater value for a bill’s passage.

But it can also cause friction with party loyalists. Three years ago, Abrams released her caucus to vote on charter schools despite opposition from teacher groups. Two years ago, she clashed with Senate Democrats over how to handle a bill proposing to shrink municipal early-voting periods. Earlier this year, Democrats at the Capitol disagreed over how to negotiate over the session’s signature $1 billion transportation bill.

Again, Abrams brushes those disagreements aside.

“We were able to secure money for MARTA for the first time in 40 years,” she said. “We have been able to get a low-income (loan program) for kids. … We were able to help preserve pre-k. We have a range of successes that come about because we are willing to think about leadership in a different way.”

‘Georgians do not care which party you’re with’

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, described Abrams the way many do.

“She’s without question one of the smartest members in the General Assembly, and I think that’s recognized widely by individuals in both parties,” Holcomb said. “She doesn’t have the typical guttural political instinct of just rotely opposing things and see what I can get out of it. She takes a step back and thinks: ‘Is this is a good idea? Is it good for the state? And is it something we can potentially work together on?’ ”

Even Abrams admits she operates differently than many leaders of minority parties — including those who preceded her in the Georgia House. For some, the goal was simply to be the “anti” to the majority. If the majority party leadership said “X,” they saw their job to say “Y.”

“It’s insufficient to simply be the party of opposition,” Abrams said. “Georgians do not care which party you’re with, they care what you’re doing for their lives or to their lives. So my first job is to work together with the majority party.”

And she knows all eyes will be on her when the next legislative session starts in January.

“There are personality differences in every facet — it can be gender-based, it can be geographically based,” Abrams said. “I don’t think I lack for recognition. But I also don’t think that’s the point. The point is to get the work done.”